If you haven’t been vaccinated for genital HPV (human papillomavirus) infection, you might want to make an appointment with your doctor, because a new study has found that up to 45 percent of US men could have some type of HPV.
In men, HPV infections rarely show symptoms, and can often clear up on their own, but the study found that 25 percent of men could have the kind of HPV that's strongly linked to cancer, so this really isn’t something you should ignore.
The team, led by Jasmine Han, chief of gynecologic oncology at the Womack Army Medical Centre in North Carolina, reports that not only do rates of HPV infection seem incredibly high in men, but the rates of vaccination are also worryingly low.
Just 10.7 percent of the men surveyed had been vaccinated against HPV.
"Among men aged 18 to 59 years in the United States, the overall prevalence of genital HPV infection was 45.2 percent," the team reports.
"The overall genital HPV infection prevalence appears to be widespread among all age groups of men, and the HPV vaccination coverage is low."
The findings are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,868 men, who took part in the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, conducted by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 2013 and 2014.
When Han and her team looked specifically at overall genital HPV infection prevalence among the group, they found that infections were “widespread" among all age groups, and that’s a problem.
While nearly all sexually active people will get human papillomavirus (HPV) at some time in their life, and most often with little consequence, the virus can lead to changes in the body that cause a range of cancers, including cervical, anal, and throat (oropharyngeal) cancer.
According to the CDC, instances of throat cancer in US men have now overtaken cases of cervical cancer in women, which is a concern, seeing as there is a vaccine available to protect against strains of HPV.
It’s estimated that 72 percent of throat cancers in men, and 91 percent of cervical cancers in women are caused by HPV - odds that no one would want to mess with when it comes to cancer.
It’s also important to keep in mind that HPV is sexually transmitted, so you could be passing on a cancer risk to your partner.
"HPV infection is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Epidemiological studies have established HPV infection as the central cause of various cancers," the team reports.
"It is estimated that more than 9,000 cases of HPV-related cancers occur in men annually, responsible for 63 percent of penile, 91 percent of anal, and 72 percent of oropharyngeal [throat] cancers, in addition to being an indirect causal factor for cervical cancer via men serving as reservoirs for HPV transmission."
They also point out that having a 'low-risk' HPV infection isn’t without consequences - HPV is responsible for 90 percent of genital warts, and it’s estimated that 160,000 men are affected annually by these strains.
Without testing every single male in America, we can never be 100 percent certain about infection rates. But with this being a carefully selected, nationally representative sample from the CDC’s National Centre for Health Statistics, it’s a pretty good indication of what could actually be going on.
And the report isn’t all bad news - the researchers found that the overall prevalence of HPV infection was lowest among men aged 18 to 22 years, which suggests that the move towards getting 11- and 12-year-olds vaccinated is actually working.
"Male HPV vaccination may have a greater effect on HPV transmission and cancer prevention in men and women than previously estimated,” the team concludes.
(Note: if you didn't get vaccinated at this age, depending on your current age and life circumstances, it could still be very worthwhile, so check with your doctor.)
This study is restricted to US males, so it's not clear if the rates of male HPV are similar elsewhere in the world, but a similar vaccination is on offer in Australia, and one is currently being trailed in the UK.
The study has been published in JAMA Oncology.